Crimea Voters to Decide March 16 on Union With Russia or Ukraine

Voters in Crimea will decide on March 16 whether the Black Sea peninsula will join Russia or stay with Ukraine after local lawmakers opted to return the region back to Russia at an emergency meeting.

Today’s vote by the Crimean legislature, which announced the referendum date today on its website, is non-binding. Ukraine’s Kiev-based government accused Crimean Prime Minister Sergei Aksenov and the parliament’s speaker, Vladimir Konstantinov, of staging an attempted coup.

“The decisions by the Crimean parliament are illegal because they are taken under pressure from armed men,” said acting President Oleksandr Turchynov, in comments confirmed by his spokeswoman in a telephone interview.

Crimea has been rocked for days by Russian threats of invasion to “protect rights and freedoms” of Russian speakers in the region that was given to Ukraine in 1954 by Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev. Protests that ousted Ukraine’s pro-Kremlin President Viktor Yanukovych have shifted to the country’s south and east as Russian speakers face off against Ukrainian-speaking neighbors in cities from Sevastopol to Donetsk.

Turchynov’s office also said the planned March 16 referendum is illegal, though it declined to say what actions the national government will take immediately.

Crimea lawmakers asked Russian President Vladimir Putin and the Russian parliament to begin procedures for making the Black Sea peninsula a part of the Russian Federation, according to the Crimean Information Agency, a state-run wire service.

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